COSTILLA COUNTY — Want to buy a mountain? It costs a fee to climb it.
Culebra Peak, one of the state’s iconic 14,000-foot mountains is on the market as part of a massive wilderness estate on the edge of the San Luis Valley that borders the New Mexico state line. The more than 83,000-acre Cielo Vista Ranch, meaning “View of Heaven,” can all be had for a cool $105 million.
The storied Taylor Ranch is now Cielo Vista Ranch, one of the largest, most pristine private properties in North America.
Mirr Ranch Group, sales representative for the property, writes, “This is, quite simply, an opportunity to own one of the most distinctive properties in the West. Dramatic snow-capped vistas not only form the backdrop of Cielo Vista, the peaks are indeed a part of the ranch itself.”
The ranch has been up for sale for about a year and a half and Pat Lancaster, broker for Mirr, suggests “growing interest” means it may sell soon.
“Rarely do you see a private tract of land that has that type of mountainous areas,” said Lancaster. “Just the alpine country, with all of the 13,000-foot peaks, let alone the one at 14,000 feet, it really doesn’t happen in the lower 48 (states) or anywhere that I know of.”
Called “the mountain tract” and “La Sierra” by locals, the ranch was acquired in the 1960s by New Bern, N.C lumber baron Jack T. Taylor, who began fencing off lands his neighbors had long used for sustenance guaranteed by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
The top of the Sangre de Cristo range, including the 14,053-foot Culebra Peak, along with 18 peaks over 13,000 feet, make up the eastern boundary of the property for over 23 miles. Alpine terrain gives way to large stands of pine, spruce, fir, aspens and meadows. The ranch is home to thousands of elk, while bighorn sheep roam the property’s high country peaks and glacial basins.
Cielo Vista includes 23 miles of ridgeline on the eastern boundary of the Sangre de Cristo Range. Its land has an official history dating back to before Colorado gained statehood in 1876, when Mexico granted it to a French Canadian trapper. Under his watch, part of what is today Cielo Vista Ranch was deeded to Mexican and Spanish settlers, which included rights for logging, hunting and grazing.
Title to the land and even the mere use of it has been a story of crime, violence and legal wrangling, since the Spanish grantees had their lands taken through legal technicalities, such as having to register their titles in English in Denver.
Started under Spanish rule, the system of land grants was continued by the Mexican government after they gained independence from Spain in 1821. The San Luis Valley was part of Mexico’s northern frontier along with the Taos and Cimarron New Mexico areas. Some French Canadians were allowed to settle in these areas. One of these French Canadians was Charles Beaubien who came in 1824, became a citizen and married a woman from Taos.
Another “naturalized citizen” was Stephen Louis Lee originally from Missouri. He and Beaubien’s son, Narcisco, petitioned Governor Manuel Armijo for the 1 million acre Sangre de Cristo Land Grant in the San Luis Valley. In 1844 they received the land but when they were both killed three years later during the Taos Rebellion, the grant went to Charles Beaubien.
In 1848, after the Mexican War, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo was signed guaranteeing the new American citizens the right to the grants which they had previously been given. Beaubien’s title was confirmed by the US Congress in 1860. However, Beaubien died four years later and the land was sold to Col. William Gilpin, the first territorial governor of Colorado
Gilpin’s grant was sold to Eastern investors in 1869 and was then divided into two parts, the Trinchera estate in the north and the Costilla estate in the south. At this time there were 2,000 Hispanics living on the land.
The eastern developers attempted to sell the Costilla portion to Dutch immigrants who would not agree to buy the land unless “La Gente” already living there were removed.
The inhabitants produced legal documents to their title from Carlos Beabien, but the documents were ignored and the land was eventually sold to Taylor.
It changed hands again in 1988 for $20 million and became the source of a decades-long legal battle that nearly made it to the U.S. Supreme Court where the heirs of the Mexican and Spanish settlers sought to recoup their previously guaranteed access to the prized terrain.
Colorado’s high court finally reinstated some of those permissions in 2002, awarding logging and grazing opportunities, but ending those rights to fishing or hunting. More permissions have been granted since then.
Bobby Hill, a Texas-based rancher and land speculator, last bought the property with business partners in 2004 for between $40 and $60 million.
He and his gang now look to nearly double their money on the investment at roughly $1,260 an acre. With the neighboring 172,000-acre Trinchera Ranch selling to wealthy hedge-fund manager Louis Moore Bacon in 2007 for $175 million, or approximately $1,000 per acre, the asking price might not be so outlandish in comparison.
As part of the purchase price, the next owner will also have the ability to establish how the ranch’s commercial enterprises carry on — if at all. It could be bought, for example, and wiped entirely from Colorado’s stock of “must climb” mountains. The cost to climb Culebra Peak is currently $150 per person and there will be no climbs this year after July.
The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative estimates that fewer than 1,000 people attempt to climb Culebra Peak — a Class 2 (of 5), 5-to-7-mile hike with about 3,000 feet of elevation gain, depending on the starting point — each year, at least in part due to the associated fee.
In fact, because so few make the trek to the ranch, located 45 minutes outside of Alamosa in Costilla County, the mountain’s northwest ridge route has no established trail, making for an even more unique experience.
Whether someone should have a right to own one of the state’s premier hiking destinations is a debate for public versus private land advocates and certainly the land grant heirs.